Review: A Quiet Place: Day One Offers a Tense, Emotional Glimpse into the Start of an Alien Onslaught

Less a terrifying thrill ride and more of an introspective examination of emotional extremes, the prequel story A Quiet Place: Day One shifts the action of the first two films from remote locations (as well as away from the Abbott family) to the heart of Manhattan, where (as we’re told in an opening title card) the decibel level on a normal day is equivalent to a person screaming. This is particularly problematic when you’re dealing with sightless aliens with impenetrable armor plating and incredibly sharp hearing that are in the early stages of killing off most of the human population.

We’ve already gotten a glimpse of the Day One onslaught in A Quiet Place: Part II prologue, when we see how the Abbotts first encounter these creatures, but that seems like a picnic interrupted by ants compared to New York City, which begins with asteroid-like masses falling from the sky, cars getting flipped over and exploding, and people slaughtered by the dozens. This may sound like the beginning of a nonstop, large-scale disaster movie, but Day One is anything but. We begin modestly enough in a cancer ward in a hospital located just outside the city, where poet Samira (Lupita Nyong’o) is residing and miserable. She’s in a group session with other cancer patients, and it’s doing nothing to raise her spirits or feel connected with others, even with the help of the nurse leading the meeting, played by Alex Wolff, who decides what the group needs is a trip into the city. Samira gets a spark of happiness at the idea of finally having access to good pizza, so she agrees to go, along with her emotional-support cat, who becomes a crucial part of this movie.

But the city visit is cut short when word of the attacks begins to spread and within minutes of their bus attempting to leave downtown, all hell breaks loose. People who scream out of fear or pain are the first to get snatched up (don’t worry: much like the first two films, Day One is a mostly bloodless, PG-13 affair), so it doesn’t take long for people to figure out that sound is drawing the aliens in. There’s a sequence in which hundreds of people are trying to walk the streets silently toward an evacuation point at South Street Seaport, but eventually the collective noise of that many people just walking at once draws the aliens. The moment is scary for many reasons, chief among them that humans can’t survive in large numbers, which immediately isolates us further from those who might save us.

Bur Samira does run into people who power her forward, including a father (Djimon Hounsou) and daughter who she keeps running into throughout the film, as well as a young lawyer named Eric (Joseph Quinn, Stranger Things, as well as the upcoming Gladiator 2 and the new Human Torch in the Fantastic Four film), who bonds with her despite her reluctance to pair up with someone to increase her chances of survival. Still intent on getting up to her favorite pizza place in Harlem, Samira drags Eric with her, and at some point on their journey, we begin to realize that escape may not be her goal in this story, though she does seem to want Eric and her cat to make it to the boats at the Seaport.

A Quiet Place: Day One was written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, the filmmaker behind the masterful Nicolas Cage vehicle Pig, a work with intrigue as well as one person’s journey that we’re also not sure whether they’ll survive or if our protagonist cares if they do. We never actually know Samira’s prognosis for survival from her cancer, but with the growing realization that the necessary medicines and treatment are a thing of the past, her last-meal drive for pizza starts to seem less reckless and more a necessity. Her bond with Eric feels organic and important, and the perfect combination of strength and sadness in Nyong’o’s performance is the heart and soul of this movie, making it a type of emotional journey that the first two films simply aren’t. And once you realize where the final shot of the film is going to land, you might forget to breathe for a minute.

Whereas the first two films were about a family finding the strength to survive and carry on despite great tragedy, Day One is about rediscovering the will to live, if only for a couple extra hours. It also deepens the mythology of the aliens, making it clear what level of city noise they will respond to. I especially liked a scene where Samira is able to talk out loud near a fountain (this film’s version of the waterfall sequence in the first movie) and during a thunderstorm, during which she can cover up her own screams when the thunder cracks. The vibe of this chapter feels different, deeper, and more personal, and a great deal of that is due to that feeling of being alone in a place that is designed for millions of people in a relatively small space. But that difference makes this film substantial, while remaining tense and scary at times.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.